My Little Grand Tour: San Francisco (1/3)

I’ve always dreamed of seeing San Francisco. I don’t exactly know why. Maybe it was all those Charmed episodes (oh, great, now I’ve got the song stuck in my head again and I did not need to know they’re rebooting it). Maybe it’s because I love cities with a hard mix of old and new. Anyway, […]

I’ve always dreamed of seeing San Francisco. I don’t exactly know why. Maybe it was all those Charmed episodes (oh, great, now I’ve got the song stuck in my head again and I did not need to know they’re rebooting it). Maybe it’s because I love cities with a hard mix of old and new. Anyway, when they invited us to go down there and give a speech, the urge to see cool stuff and feel good completely kicked in.

I spent three amazing nights there and, even if I’m a passionate hiker, I walked too much even for my standards. Therefore I’ll share with you my itineraries but kids, please, don’t do this by yourselves unless you really know what you’re getting into. I’m serious. Even I had to give up at the end of one itinerary and call an Uber.

A proper Guide

I do this every time: I buy a guide on-line, flick through it, and then I never use it. I guess I buy them because I’m old and then I don’t use them because I’m not that old. Between Google Maps and Tripadvisor there’s really no need to buy a guide anymore, but sometimes you find products that can really add value to your travels. I was lucky enough to find one of those at the SFMOMA bookshop, so I want to share the title with you. It’s a deck of flash cards from the City Walks series. They’re great. Especially if you like to explore by walking. They have lots of cities, like New York, London, Paris and Los Angeles, although I gave you a little piece of advice about walking through Los Angeles, when I get to writing that piece of diary too.



Day 1: circling around the Marriott Marquis

When I checked in, the hotel concierge sketched a triangle on the map and told me not to go walking there. Now, if there’s one thing you do not tell me is that. Besides, this is where I remind you that I worked in places where you had to go to the construction site carrying a gun. Hence, San Francisco, your market doesn’t scare me.

What does scare me is a city with fog in August. Thicker fog than Milan in November.
Even if I was coming from Iceland, the stop in St Louis must have soften me too much, because that freezing wind was enough to discourage me from long walks, at least in the morning of the first day. Therefore I decided to take it slow and basically started circling around the hotel. Which is pretty much walking where they guy told me not to, so double win. If you’re using the City Walks, the morning would basically cover Itineraries nr.2 (SFMOMA and Yerba Buena); nr.3 (Union Square); nr.6 (The Jackson Square Historic District and the Embarcadero); nr.11 (The Embarcadero and The Exploratorium); nr.12 (Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39); nr.4 (Chinatown I). They’re all easy itineraries. If you take them by themselves.

My hotel, seen from the Contemporary Jewish Museum below.

1.1 St Patrick’s Catholic Church

I was fascinated by the fact these guys have a Good Weed Square, so I went there. Aside from a really nice urban garden and a museum that was closed, you can cut from Mission Street to Market Street going through another nice garden, Jessie Square, where you’ll find the Contemporary Jewish Museum and St Patrick’s Catholic Church. The museum was closed, so I went into the church to regroup my thoughts and look for a little bit of warmth. As it turns out, it’s one of the favorite spots for a consolidated group of homeless who are basically looking for the very same thing I was: a little bit of warmth.


I got the chance to talk to a lady who told me the story of how she became homeless from being a math teacher. And, of course, it was because of a men who leeched on her and then left her broken, without a job and without any mean to suffice to herself. The system did the rest: no family, no proper assistance, just the basic one that lets you survive but is not enough to help you rise from your ashes. In case you’re wondering, this was after I specifically told her I was a tourist and had no American money. No need to make up a sob story. It was quite interesting and I’m glad she felt like sharing her story with me.

The church is in Gothic revival style and was finished in 1851. They make a point of letting you know that it was completely destroyed during the earthquake in 1906. It became a designated landmark in 1968.

If you’re around and it’s open, you might want to stop at the Contemporary Jewish Museum. If not, just stop to watch the facade and then come back at a different time of the day. It’s not you, you’re not drunk: they change color. The museum is made of two parts: an original one, designed in 1881 by Willis Polk, and an expansion by Libeskind. To be kind, we would just say that it’s smaller but very similar to his Danish Jewish Museum in Copenhagen and leave it at that.

In the surroundings next year, you’ll also have the Mexican Museum, which by now is just an interesting construction site, and the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, which was closed.

1.2 The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

If you’re cold and lonely and in need to get in touch with some beauty, this museum is a stop you must make. It also works if you’re just cold.
Aside from having a temporary on René Magrittes, the main collection is just amazing. Here’s my main favorite things:

  • Calder. I love how those things swirl around. And you need to be a cold-hearted bastard not to be moved by the Giant Banana.
  • Gillian Wearing and her “Me As” series. It starts very softly with a self-portrait of the artist. Then it builds up with a pair of self-portraits, one as her mother and the other as her father. You have pictures of her as Diane Arbus and, if you Google her, you’ll find the stunning Me as Warhol in Drag with Scar. My favorite, on display at the SFMOMA, is the one as Claude Cahun. The beauty, mystery and sadness it projects is simply moving.

When I was fourteen, my grandparents suggested that I needed plastic surgery.
They made an appointment with a famous cosmetic surgeon,
and it was decided that my nose should be straightened,
that a scar on my left leg should be covered up with a piece of skin taken from my ass
and that my ears should be pulled back.
I had doubts, but they reassured me,
I could change my mind up until the very last moment.
In the end, though, it was Doctor F. himself who put an end to my dilemma.
Two days before the operation, he committed suicide.

Sophie Calle, The Plastic Surgery (2000)

  • Sol LeWitt‘s Open Cubes. You probably have seen his cubes (they’ve got one at the Met museum as well) but what you must see is the room full of drawings and small prints of the open cubes.
  • Lick and Lather by Janine Antoni. The author did two self portrait busts, one in chocolate and one in soap, and then worn them out by licking one and scrubbing the other. I like to think she licked the chocolate one, but you can never know with artists. The result is a graceful reflection on the dualism of what is requested of women: to be sensual and yet pure.
  • Sublime Seas by John Akomfrah. It’s a temporary, so you better move your asses. It’s a beautiful triptych combining history, fiction and documentary in one grand narrative of sea as a channel of migration, commerce, hunt, slavery, human tragedy. You can read all about it here.
  • Hung Liu. Don’t ask me why I love her Loom, but I genuinely think it’s one of the most beautiful thing I saw during my travels this summer.


  • Matthew Barney and his portraits. I’ve rarely seen such beautiful, bright and deep portraits. They span from the cyberpunk attire and the traditional outfit. You’ll find the Occidental Guest (Bride) from the Drawing Restraint nr.9, which is world famous also for his cinematic exploit, but I was madly in love with the deep blue, punk, Amigdala-style modern geisha. I’m so sad I didn’t take a picture.
  • Martin WongChinese New Year’s Parade. Another beautiful work, with fascinating vibrant color and amazing detail. You can read about the author here.

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If it’s not magic – it’s merchandise.
Christopher Wilmart

1.3 Palace Hotel

When you get out from the SFMOMA you’ll probably want a place to eat, unless you’re one of those people who eat in museums (ugh). Well, do not go to the Palace Hotel looking for the renown Pied Piper, ’cause it’s closed during the day. But you can stop by just to see the magnificent entrance and lounge.


After that, you can do what I did and have lunch at one of the nice places in Belden Place. It’s one of those narrow streets with lights you see in movies: they actually have those. I personally picked Sam’s Grill, though I’m not sure I can recommend it: the oysters were quite plain and that’s a crime against… well, everything, actually.

1.4 Wells Fargo History Museum

It’s a small place but it’s imaginative and fun, especially if you want something different after the serious SFMOMA. They have cool exhibits and you can do all sorts of stuff, from riding a stagecoach to using a telegraph and bank machines. You can also send something weird home, through an interactive device. I sent a Gila monster to my loved ones in Europe. They assured me they could handle it, but it hasn’t arrived yet and now I’m not so sure.


1.5 Pier 15 and The Exploratorium

If you’re tired of strolling around in the city and want to see some sea, you can always double down towards the piers. I was aiming at Pier 9, but eventually ended up in this Science Museum. It’s mostly for kids and families, and you have lots of activities you’ll need a companion for (and I didn’t have one), but still it makes for an interesting visit, especially if you’re not only interested in the stories but also in finding newer ways of telling them. It’s really a beautiful space.

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There’s also a beautiful kinetic sculpture of something like a giant floating luminescent octopus and it’s really fun to witness tourists trying to interact with it. It’s not interactive, you know? It couldn’t care less about you waving your arms about.

1.6 Pier 39 and a whole load of crap

If you want to be a real tourist, you go to Pier 39 and knock yourself out with shopping. They have all sorts of things, including a Build-a-Bear and a Merry Go Round. You can buy spices, Crazy Caps (quite literally, only with a k), they have an NFL shop where they are begging you to buy some Oakland Raiders merchandise, and enough sweets to make your teeth rot only by thinking about it.


1.7 Pier 45 and the Musée Mecanique

On the other hand, if you want to save some dimes I suggest you go straight to Pier 45 and be prepared to loose them all. Aside from the USS Pampanito, a submarine you can queue to visit, you’ll find what is probably the most enjoyable establishment I’ve visited in San Francisco: the Musée Mecanique. Forget everything you know about museums: this is a proper Arcade House. Only, they have more than 300 exhibits, dating back to the beginning of last century (no kidding) and you can play with them. That’s right. The entrance is free, but be sure you have enough cents because you will spend them all here. And if you don’t, they offer change for larger amounts of money, so you’ll end up spending more. They have the stuff of dreams and, honestly, the stuff of nightmares too.

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1.8 Chinatown

Heading back, I went up through Columbus Avenue and then cut across the main street of Chinatown, looking for the Dragon’s Gate. It’s a fun colorful experience, although I wasn’t in the mood to show back at the hotel with a giant Jade Buddha or a couple of roasted ducks. Keep an eye out for art on the facade of buildings: they have beautiful paintings (but wait till I get into speaking about Los Angeles).

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